Realistic portrayal of the scientific community needed to combat science denial

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Sara Gorman, PhD, MPH is a public health specialist at a major multinational healthcare company, where she works on global mental health, increasing the quality of evidence in the global health field, and alternative funding models for global health. Her book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us, will be released by Oxford University Press in August 2016. The book examines the psychology behind healthcare decision-making and theorizes about public perception of risk. It includes tips for the general public about how to discriminate between valid and invalid science and pointers for public health professionals and doctors on how to communicate with people who do not believe what science has taught us about health. Sara earned an MPH in Health Policy and Management from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a PhD in English literature from Harvard University.

With the recent release of the movie “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” I’m seeing a few blog posts and articles pop up about the hegemonic nature of science and the consensus culture that the field supposedly embodies. In fact, this argument is at the center of the anti-vaccine movement in general. Andrew Wakefield and his supporters do not simply put forward their “idea,” but they insist that the scientific community and the government are engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the known ill effects of vaccines. This kind of thinking is what leads to statements like “Dr. Wakefield is a hero to the autism community. He does not quit. There are lots of doctors who know what vaccines are really doing to our children, but they remain silent. It takes a special kind of courage to stand by the truth and have your career and your reputation destroyed.”

At the same time, I’m seeing a lot of responses from the media and scientific communities that take the form of simply accruing evidence to show people why they are wrong.

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In dealing with statements like these that are so clearly contrary to scientific findings and even appear somewhat paranoid, it’s important not to simply dismiss them and attempt to counteract by citing a lot of scientific facts. Those methods usually don’t work very well. What does help is to take these statements apart and think more carefully about what’s really behind them. What are people really saying when they claim that doctors are engaged in a conspiracy to hurt their children? How exactly did they form that belief and what is the precise misunderstanding that caused it? What are the emotional benefits of holding onto that belief and how can we respond in ways that are sensitive to those emotions?

In the case of anti-vaccine sentiments, there are many factors at play beyond misunderstanding of the science. In fact, I would argue that many people who become persuaded that vaccines are dangerous are actually highly educated and may not misunderstand the science at all. So if misunderstanding the science is not the only issue, what is going on here and how can we reverse it?

First of all, we need to recognize something very important about Andrew Wakefield: like him or not, he is definitely a charismatic leader. Charismatic leadership can be used for either “good” or “bad.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was a charismatic leader. But so was Adolf Hitler. Scholars have done a careful job of isolating the characteristics that make a leader “charismatic.” Usually, a charismatic leader is someone on the “fringes” of the mainstream and calls for extreme actions, such as revolution or uprising (Conger & Kanungo, Charismatic leadership in orga­nizations, pg 13-14). If you study Andrew Wakefield carefully, it becomes immediately clear that he fits most of the criteria for charismatic leadership. I won’t go into all of the details here, but his very emphasis on the fact that he has been systematically excluded from the scientific community by way of a conspiracy that requires nothing short of an uprising to expose is one clear indication. The main point here, however, is not to prove that Wakefield is in fact a charismatic leader but rather to acknowledge the fact that people who believe him are not just unable to understand science. They are responding to extremely powerful social cues that tap into a whole range of psychological features that the charismatic leader is able to manipulate. This is precisely why charismatic leaders are so persuasive.

But there’s clearly something else going on here aside from Wakefield’s charisma. There is a misunderstanding of sorts but it’s not what we think it is. Rather than misunderstanding the evidence that vaccines do not cause autism, many Wakefield followers are mistakenly persuaded by his portrayal of science in general. This is an important distinction because it alters how we think about educating people who do not believe the evidence. As a charismatic leader, Wakefield is very persuasive in his self-portrayal as someone who has been systematically excluded from the scientific mainstream. He paints a vivid picture of a scientific community that is dictatorial and hegemonic. He claims with great passion that the scientific community is simply a consensus culture and that the reason his research has been retracted and debunked is because no one wants to entertain evidence that disagrees with their viewpoints.

Now, scientists overwhelmingly agree that vaccines do not cause autism. Wakefield twists this very fact to support his claim that science is united against him. But Wakefield’s picture of the scientific community is totally inaccurate. Science is a field with a great deal of debate and a lot of ambiguities. Scientists do not do one experiment, claim they have found the “truth,” and then just force everyone else to fall in line. Instead, scientists are trained to be extremely skeptical and the scientific method is actually set up to favor disproving hypotheses rather than proving them. It takes decades of careful research and endless replications for scientists to even begin to accept something as scientific truth. Indeed, scientists took Wakefield’s claims seriously, even though his methods were egregiously flawed and rendered the study completely invalid. In the almost 20 years since Wakefield published his (now-retracted) paper in The Lancet, there have been numerous studies using valid research methods to investigate whether Wakefield’s claim is true. All of them, of course, have shown no significant association between vaccination and autism.

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This is not meant merely to reinforce the evidence against Wakefield’s claim but to comment on the dire need for better education of the general public on what science is really like. Most of us simply learn the scientific method, usually presented as a rigid, almost theological, system, in elementary school and that’s the end of it. Scientific education needs to include a more informed look at how science operates in the real world. And media portrayals of scientists need to show more of the process and be better represent real debates when they exist (which is most of the time in science). Only when people better understand not simply the evidence but also how the scientific community operates and what constitutes a real debate can we begin to have a useful dialogue about science denial.

Sara Gorman will be joining us once a month to highlight different aspects of her forthcoming book on science denialism: Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us. See her previous contribution here.